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The Human Side Of Collaboration

Collaboration is a hot topic in IT circles, and we see many vendors competing to provide the software to accomplish this task. But is collaboration really a technological issue? After all, humans have been collaborating for thousands of years--long before the introduction of information technology. Here's a way that IT people can look at collaboration and become more influential in their companies.

Imagine that you're asked to develop a collaboration strategy for the company. How would you proceed? I’m afraid that for most IT people, the process would look very similar. You'd investigate various software offerings, and perhaps even benchmark one or two. Some research would certainly accompany this, but it would be technical research--looking at what others say about the software.

Imagine now that you’re not the typical IT person. Let's say that, like me, you studied to become a psychotherapist and later translated this interest into the study of organizational behavior. Your research, therefore, starts with the premise that collaboration is primarily a social and cultural phenomenon.

You go back to seminal work that Dr. Harold Leavitt did in the late 1940s. In his doctoral dissertation, Leavitt discovered that the way that people communicate profoundly impacts their task efficiency. He found, for example, that a star network, in which participants can communicate only with the head of the group, is good for fast decision making and control. On the other hand, a circle network, in which the participants can communicate with members on either side of them, leads to more creative problem solving and task completion, and more adaptability. And circle-network members enjoy better morale and exhibit more enthusiasm.

Additional research turns up a little-known MIT study that shows that one-to-one electronic communication, such as E-mail, actually inhibits community building, whereas many-to-many--as in chat groups and groupware-- enables community building.

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